Donald Sterling and Matthew the Tax Collector

This has to be said up front: Donald Sterling’s comments were as grotesque as his lifestyle is abhorrent and his worldview is depraved. There is no way around this fact. In a private-turned-public soap opera, the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner of 32 years exposed himself as nothing short of a white supremacist. That term is as charged or neutral as the reader wants to make it, but Sterling clearly believes that genteel, glamorous, and civilized “white” society is morally superior and aesthetically preferable to African-American culture as a whole. On April 29 the new NBA commissioner Adam Silver took swift and unequivocal action to send the message that bigotry has no place in an institution which has long been an epicenter for the debate on American race relations. Sterling is mind-bogglingly powerful (he is one of the thousand wealthiest living humans) and must be held to account for the ways that he has frequently perpetrated injustice from his position of extreme power. Whether the punishment fits the crime is for society to evaluate once the dust settles. Silver’s heavy-handed justice in no way resembles a kangaroo court, but for now, I want to suggest that far too many of us have rushed to condemn a privately-honest racist without doing very much to understand and deconstruct racism. Sterling has made his nearly two billion dollars in large part off the backs of minorities (members of his basketball franchise and tenants in his real estate holdings). Joan Walsh has shown that “only a few bad leaps of logic” separate Sterling from the possibly pro-slavery perspective of another person currently generating media headlines, Cliven Bundy. I have no real opinion about whether Sterling’s punishment is too harsh or not harsh enough – nor what precedents this decision has for free speech and privacy going forward – but I do think that the public and the media have approached this scandal in a reactionary way that ultimately might do more to crystallize systemic racism than it does to erode it. Sterling is being cut out of the league like a cancer. I wonder whether he is the real cancer, or whether he is just one of billions of hosts that a much more pernicious cancer has been invading since time immemorial.

Silver has acted swiftly and decisively. Now comes the rush of pundits to comment on this cycle, with this piece being no exception. Already ESPN’s Jason Whitlock and J.A. Adande have questioned whether this summary execution was too quick and too clean. Sterling seems to be functioning as a scapegoat, but the parallel between the biblical scapegoat and the Sterling saga breaks down in at least one crucial way. In Leviticus 16 the goat designated “for Azazel” is laden with the community’s sins, then exiled to the desert to die with the sins it carries. Unfortunately, the sin of racism is far too large to fit on Sterling’s shoulders, and it will not die with his exile. My objection is not to the consequences which Silver has imposed on Sterling, but with the public consensus that racism is coterminous with racists. Furthermore, this decision sends the message that prejudices – to which none of us are immune – are to be suppressed even in people’s most intimate spaces (such as a private phone call with a mistress) rather than named, confronted, and worked through. There is a small but finite undercurrent in Sterling’s infamous phone conversation that recognizes the injustice of a society determined by race, so perhaps Sterling himself is not beyond redemption on this point. Still, even if this particular dog is too old to learn new tricks, the problem is too systemic for euthanizing the dog to do anything but further polarize people around this issue.

I was raised to see overt racism as unpardonable. One of its most enduring symbols, I was taught, is the Confederate battle flag. According to my influences all the way from childhood to seminary, this flag is the emblem for a racially stratified culture in which everyone knows his or her place. I remember telling a friend just before I began serving an overwhelmingly white congregation in the rural American south that my stomach always churns at the sight of that flag. My friend urged me, if only for the sake of my ministerial sanity, to try to understand the cultural nuances which the flag’s symbolism encompasses. I have to admit that the flag still makes my stomach churn, but I have come to learn that my absolutist rejection of it is often as blind and unquestioning as other people’s embracing.

My own suburban white middle-class culture, which taught my stomach to churn at bigotry, is not clean either. It exploits the Global South in its relentless pursuit of consumerism with only liberal nods toward human dignity. It isolates people from land, community, and soul with its compartmentalized and privatized worldview. It gentrifies neighborhoods and makes up in classism what it lacks in overt bigotry. It is self-righteous about its progressivism, unaware that any stones it might want to throw at previous generations of “ignorance” will be recycled by future generations who will view my own as “backward.” This is not at all to excuse the sinfulness of overt racism – however much Donald Sterling may be the victim of a white-supremacist ideology, racial minorities who suffer at his powerful hands are victims a thousand times over – but I do suggest that people need to work together to confront prejudice. Exiling him from the public forum will just push racism further under the surface. The national dialogue has been reinvigorated since he entered the spotlight, and it will be equally quieted when the news cycle moves on to something else. Donald Sterling, or at least the world that produced him, needs to be involved in this conversation or it will never change. His is a world based on severe blindness and revisionist history. Dialogue and education are the way forward. Silencing and punishing racists does no more to make ours a post-racial society than does the election of an African-American leader. In what Whitlock calls “mob rule” the American media and public have demanded Sterling’s head on a platter and received it in a matter of days.

The Christian story is, at a very basic level, one of inclusion. The Church was born on a Pentecost in which people of diverse languages and nationalities were mystically united in one faith. Baptism, according to Paul, overcomes the curse of cultural division along the lines of ethnicity, class, and gender. Perhaps most telling is the subtle inclusion of two political enemies in Jesus’ small band of followers, an inclusion which defies the progressive practice of tolerating everyone but the intolerant. One of the Twelve disciples, a man often called “Simon the Lesser” to distinguish him from Simon Peter, seems to have had the nickname, “the Zealot.” First century Jewish zealots were political radicals who believed that the Romans must be forcefully expelled from Jerusalem and that any Jews who cooperated with their Roman overlords were to be punished swiftly and – according to many – lethally. Perhaps the chief profession associated with this betrayal was tax collection. Simon, from what we know of Zealots, would have been profoundly uncomfortable having a tax collector in his group. Yet Jesus famously dined with tax collectors and even invited one – the namesake for the Gospel of Matthew – to be one of his twelve disciples.

What did Jesus understand that our society does not? Why invite ideological enemies to sit at his feet simultaneously? Only when we are in community together, sincerely engaging one another, can we begin to grasp a mutually-understood Truth. Perhaps expunging Donald Sterling from his position of power will inspire a more honest public discourse. But I fear that silencing his honesty, no matter how ignorant, will only entrench our own latent prejudices and feed the lie that we can atone for society’s racism by sacrificing its most unsightly racists.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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One thought on “Donald Sterling and Matthew the Tax Collector

  1. Very powerful article, Tasi. You added a nuanced perspective to my understanding if the Sterling scandal. I wonder though if there comes a point when, in trying to deal with racism, the best approach is to ignore the perpetrators by not giving them a forum or an opportunity to influence others. As ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith put it on his New York radio show, he doesn’t wish Sterling ill, but rather just wants him “to go away.” I agree that we should think about education as a first step in responding to racism, but sometimes the most profound way to counter racism is to quiet the racists.

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